• August 2011

Why Avoiding Conflict Keeps You Trapped in It Forever

By Lisa Earle McLeod
Sales and Leadership Expert
McLeod & More, Inc.

Most people don’t like conflict. In fact, a recent study of CEOs found that fear of conflict was one of the seven deadly sins CEOs won’t admit.

The problem is, avoiding conflict doesn’t reduce tension; if anything, it escalates it. Issues become bigger, resentment grows, people become disengaged and feel powerless to solve their problems.

A reluctance to deal with conflict is hugely detrimental to business.

Good ideas remain unspoken and leaders don’t get the information they need because everyone is afraid to bring up potentially contentious issues. The postmortem on any business failure almost always reveals that critical information went unaddressed because somebody was afraid to discuss it.

Avoiding conflict also wreaks havoc on relationships. Have you ever been around someone who was frustrated or angry, but doesn’t want to talk about it? They ooze resentment.

Here are three big reasons people avoid conflict and tips to overcome them:

1. False assumptions about surface information. My friend and client Judi Bruce at Deloitte says, “It’s like the classic orange story.” Two people are fighting over an orange. They both want the whole thing. But when asked why they want the whole orange, one replies, “I need all the juice to make my cake.” The other replies, “I need all the zest from the peel to make my frosting.”

What seems to be a conflict might not be a conflict at all. Just because someone says they want something doesn’t mean that you have a full understanding of their goals. Dig for a little more information. Neutral questions like, “Tell me a bit more about how you envision this” or, “Help me understand where you’re coming from” often reveal a win/win approach to resolving the conflict.

2. Mistaking determination for rigidity. Just because someone is enthusiastic, or even firm, doesn’t mean that the person is not open to other suggestions. I have this problem a lot. When I get excited about something, I start talking a mile a minute and people often assume that I’m unwilling to consider anything different.

Confronting a dominant personality doesn’t have to be combative. Simply ask: Are you open for feedback on this? If they say yes, which most people will, start off saying, “I tend to think of these things from a different perspective.” It keeps the conversation neutral. You’re not attacking their point of view; you’re just sharing yours. High-energy people move quickly and enthusiastically. They might wind up loving your idea and embracing it with the same zeal they do their own.

3. Lack of confidence. The biggest reason people avoid conflict is because they don’t see a clear way to bring up an issue and resolve it peacefully. They doubt their ability to guide the conversation or put forth a compelling case. They assume there’s going to be an argument and that they will lose.

But disagreements don’t mean death; they’re just disagreements. You don’t have to be afraid of them. Human beings are human beings. There is always going to be conflict. It doesn’t have to be contentious or ugly.

It’s ironic.

When you accept conflict as an inevitable part of business and relationships, you wind up with less of it. The more confidence you have in your ability to handle disagreements, the more quickly you resolve them.

Handling a conflict isn’t the worst thing in the world. But letting one go unresolved can cause you big problems.


About Lisa Earle McLeod

Business strategist Lisa Earle McLeod is an expert in sales force and leadership development. An author, consultant, syndicated columnist, media commentator, and keynote speaker, she is recognized as a thought-leader whose latest book, “The Triangle of Truth,” was named a Washington Post Top 5 Business Book for Leaders.

A bottom-line-oriented business advisor whose firm, McLeod & More, Inc. was featured in Fortune Magazine, she is also a problem-solving expert whose conflict-resolution handbook was delivered to every member of the House and Senate. And she’s a leadership contributor for Forbes.com, she blogs regularly for The Huffington Post, and she has written more than 500 articles.

This high-energy keynote speaker who has rocked the house everywhere from Apple to Pfizer to The United Way is a repeat guest on “Good Morning America” and has appeared on hundreds or radio and TV shows.

McLeod’s clients range from pharmaceutical to financial services, including Ann Taylor, Capital G, West Pharmaceutical, Black & McDonald, Kimberly-Clark, CMIT, and numerous franchises and entrepreneur organizations. She is also a personal-development expert whose first book “Forget Perfect,” was featured in The New York Times, and continues to sell a full decade after the original printing. Her essay collection, “Finding Grace When You Can’t Even Find Clean Underwear,” was featured on Oprah.com.

McLeod and her husband Bob live in Atlanta. They are the parents of two fabulous teenage daughters.